The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe

The Painted Word is primarily a book about the rise of modern art—and art theory. (It also feels as if it’s a little bit about Tom Wolfe, too, but then, what book of his doesn’t feel that way?) Still, it’s an engaging read, filled with Wolfe’s studied observations and dripping with a detached bemusement toward the twisted subculture of art. Fortunately, The Painted Word is also filled with fascinating character sketches of the artists themselves. One of the most compelling—and oft repeated—arguments in the book is the notion that there are two key components necessary for the artist to attain lasting greatness: 1) The Boho Dance, in which the artist exhibits innovative work and struts his stuff amongst his peers all while showing utter disdain for the culture beyond the doors of his studio and 2) The Consummation, in which the culturati actually select the chosen artists to carry forth the standard of the movement-du-jour and the artist (albeit after some discreet hesitation) accepts the accolades and attention.

Wolfe argues that the artist who gets stuck in a crippling disdain for his audience, who cannot accept the offer to dance when it is made, is doomed to stagnation and will not be revered by history. Picasso, he argues, became Picasso, largely because he navigated the transition from one artistic stage to the other with ease. Perhaps, one is left to surmise, the secret to greatness lies not solely in talent, but in the ability to be gracious and accept the patron’s hand when proffered.

The only frustration for this reader—which may simply reflect my own ignorance of the book’s history—lay in having to wait until the end of the book to discover that I was reading a reissue of a book that was first published in 1975 (copyright page notwithstanding). As a result, no art or movement that has occurred since 1975 is mentioned. No discussion of the ways that the technological revolution will change the face of art history in the decades to come. No theorizing as to the Internet’s effects on broadening the horizons of the cloistered art scene. I kept hoping for that to be addressed, and was disappointed when it was not. Something as simple as Picador putting “Anniversary Edition” or “Heritage Printing” (or some other indicator of its age) on the cover would have saved me the pain of unrequited hope that turning that final page delivered. (Made worse by the fact that the “Epilogue”—hope, oh hope!—speaks about a time twenty-five years hence, in the year 2000. Oy! Give a poor reader some warning would you? An Epilogue, particularly if the edition is a new release and the writer is still alive, should not itself be 34 years out of date. At the very least, Picador should grant its readers this concession: Epilogue, 1975.)

Still the prose is sharp and lively and the vignettes featuring Pollock, Warhol, and Picasso and their benefactors are priceless. The clever chapter titles (would we expect any less from the man who penned The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby?) and Wolfe’s pen-and-ink drawings round out the entire package in an ironic art-meets-artist-meets-critic-meets-reader-meets-public sort of way.